Utah to face Saint Mary’s in NIT

S-Moops-cropped Colby Patterson
Jordan Loveridge drives to the basket against Colorado’s Xavier Johnson at the Huntsman Center on March 1. Photo by Chris Ayers.

Jordan Loveridge drives to the basket against Colorado’s Xavier Johnson at the Huntsman Center on
March 1. Photo by Chris Ayers.

For the first time since 2009, the Runnin’ Utes will play in a postseason invitational tournament when they square off against Saint Mary’s tonight in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament in Moraga, Calif.

Despite the fact that Utah is experiencing a resurgence this spring after two particularly frustrating campaigns, happiness isn’t the only emotion the team’s feeling. Eight of the Utes’ 11 losses thus far have come by four points or less, and players think their destination this week might have been a different one had they been on the winning side of more of those contests.

“It’s a great experience for us,” said sophomore big man Jeremy Olsen. “Last year we didn’t have a chance, and this year we’re looking to make a good run in the NIT. I feel like if we could have a few of those games back we might be in a different tournament, but you can’t control that anymore, so we just gotta do our best in the NIT.”

Succeeding in this tournament might be more of a challenge than Utah was expecting prior to the bracket being released Sunday night. Many projected the Utes would receive a one or two seed and that their first round game would be at the Huntsman Center.

This is not the case, however, as Utah is a five seed and will not play any home games in the tournament. If the Utes manage to beat the Gaels tonight, they will likely face No. 1 seeded Minnesota in the second round.

“I certainly would have loved to have had an opportunity to play at home,” said head coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It’s the classic time of year. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and I don’t like being one of those coaches that’s whining and trying to sell their team. I felt like we were deserving to host a first round game, but we didn’t, and there’s not much we can do about it at this point, so time to move on. What can you do?”

No matter where his team plays, Krystkowiak downplayed the significance of his squad competing in a postseason tournament, just two years removed from a dismally infamous 6-25 season.

“I think it’s important, but I think it’s important to try to succeed and to take the next step,” he said. “It’s one thing to be in it, but there’s no satisfaction in that. We want to make sure that it’s not any sense of accomplishment. We’ve got a real good road game, and that’s where our focus needs to be so there can’t be any celebration time and sense of accomplishment.”

Waiting for Utah is a Saint Mary’s team that is very balanced on offense. Big man Brad Waldow and point guard Stephen Holt lead the way, but the Gaels also have three other players who are close to averaging double figures in points. Saint Mary’s finished fourth in the West Coast Conference regular season standings behind Gonzaga, BYU and San Francisco.

“It’s exciting to be a part of it,” Krystkowiak said. “But then I think it doesn’t take long for your focus to turn to the matchup, and we’re gonna have our hands full with them, but we’re excited to still be playing this time of year.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. MST, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.

r.mcdonald@chronicle.utah.edu